Wharton’s Grit Expert Discusses Making Decisions and Embracing Exploration

by Diana Drake

On April 22, 2022, more than 50 high school students from as nearby as Northern New Jersey and as a far away as Indonesia traveled to the campus of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, for the Wharton Global High School Investment Competition Learning Day.

The next morning those same students – belonging to 10 teams of aspiring asset managers — would be competing against each other in the investment competition’s 2022 Global Finale, in hopes of becoming international investment-strategy champions (Check out the competition results HERE).

But this day, they came ready to network with fellow competitors, explore Wharton’s campus and learn business from the experts.

A session with Angela Duckworth, a Wharton and Penn psychology professor, provided some of the day’s deepest insights. Dr. Duckworth is founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit that advances scientific insights that help children – including teenagers — thrive. She is also author of the bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a theme she addresses in her popular 2013 TED talk (see photo above for a Learning Day student showing off her book).

Dr. Angela Duckworth.

Dr. Duckworth’s research focuses in part on how to live a happier and more successful life. How does she reach those conclusions? By studying high achievers.

“I interview and study Nobel Prize winners and Olympic gold medalists and Grammy-award-winning musicians,” said Duckworth, during her 30-minute interactive discussion with students in Wharton’s Jon M. Huntsman Hall. “The common denominator I find as a psychologist is that they have this combination of passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” she added. “That’s what grit is. Passion for long-term goals is caring about something so much that even when you don’t have to be thinking about it, you’re thinking about it…The perseverance part goes with it. So, working very hard…and being resilient in the face of setbacks.”

The unifying thread throughout Dr. Duckworth’s work, whether she is studying the power of praise or how to embrace a growth mindset (believing you can improve your abilities), is science. During her Learning Day conversation, which touched on many different topics, she called on the research of New York University professor of psychology Gabriele Oettingen to outline her own process for making difficult tradeoff decisions.

“When you are facing choices like where to go to college, which extracurricular to pursue or what to major in, I will give you a four-step process that is the most scientifically established or evidence-based way of setting goals and making plans for them,” she noted. “The acronym is called WOOP.”

W: “First ask, ‘What is my Wish?’ For example, what do I want to say about my college career? Whatever comes to mind first, is fine. I want to make a lot of money. I want to go to medical school afterwards. Or I want to be proud of myself. Whatever it is…what is my wish for college?”

O: “The first O is Outcome. What is the outcome if this wish comes true? So, I want to go to medical school after college and the outcome will be that I will take care of people. The first O clarifies your priorities. If you state clearly what the outcome is if your wish comes true, you can see whether that’s a really big wish for you, or a trivial one.”

O: “The second O is the Obstacle that stands in the way of your wish. So, if you wanted to go to medical school, the main obstacle might be organic chemistry.”

P: “P is your Plan. You need a plan, which is your answer to the obstacle.” How will you overcome it?

Dr. Duckworth concluded: “When I have a really hard choice to make, or I’m not making the progress that I want or I’m feeling unhappy, I ask myself: What is my wish? What is the best outcome if this wish comes true? What is the obstacle that stands in the way? And that sets me up to make a plan to figure out what to do.”

And what if you don’t end up happy with your final decision? You can’t be afraid to make a change, advised Professor Duckworth, who champions experimentation that requires being wrong some of the time.

“You’re going to learn most of the things that you learn in life through messy, inefficient trial and error,” she observed. “The most successful people, including Nobel Laureate scientists and truly world-class athletes at the Olympic level, have historically in their lives done more sampling and exploration than people who are not as great. Give yourself some time to try out majors, try out activities, drop those activities (but avoid quitting things in the middle; set yourself up for a commitment that has a beginning and an end). The more sampling now will help you become successful later in life.”

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